Cover to Cover: Paratextual play in Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars
Cover to Cover: Paratextual play in Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars
Ivan Callus skims the surface of Pavic’s print hypertext.
It is difficult to speak of dictionaries without recalling the notorious definition for lexicographer in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755): “A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge… ” Johnson’s definition is disingenuous, a statement rendered piquant by its inapplicability to himself. Beyond but also because of its over-quotedness, and certainly as a result of its complex tonality and the effect of ambiguous self-irony, Johnson’s dictum serves as a useful point of access to issues which concern me in this essay: the evolving role of dictionaries and lexicographers; dictionaries’ formal properties; the character of the lexicon novel; and, most importantly, how these issues impinge on Milorad Pavic’s novel, Dictionary of the Khazars (1984).
Restricting myself to some very specific formal aspects of Pavic’s novel, I shall make reference to classics of the lexicographer’s art, such as Johnson’s Dictionary, Charles Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary (1788), and the Oxford English Dictionary, in order to examine to what extent the word Dictionary in the novel’s title is a misnomer, and what the implications are of the ploys through which the narrative both follows and flouts dictionaries’ conventions. Mindful of the interest of this issue of electronic book review in the status of Eastern European postmodern fiction, I also compare the metafictional sensibilities of Dictionary of the Khazars with those of narratives which have made it possible, for critics such as Linda Hutcheon or Brian McHale, to speak of a postmodern poetics. Finally, in the context of references to certain strategies in Jacques Derrida’s Signsponge/Signéponge (1984), I want to assess how a number of specific physical properties of different editions of Dictionary of the Khazars impinge on readings of the novel.
The lexicographic credentials of Pavic’s novel foreground their own dubiousness from the very moment that it is encountered on the shelves of a bookshop or lending library. Dictionary of the Khazars exists in two editions, “male” and “female,” and to that extent challenges not only preconceptions of the dictionary form, but also of broader procedures governing book design and publishing, and of readers’ consumption of texts. My own experience of the quandary may be instructive. Puzzled by the presence on the shelves of what initially looked like two Penguin paperback copies of the same book, but whose spines differed in having printed across their upper edge a light blue stripe in the case of the one and a pinkish stripe in the case of the other, I pulled out both volumes to find that the front covers were identical in most but not all respects. These dissimilarities were not all immediately evident. One, however, would have been hard to miss. The book with the light blue stripe across its spine had the words “THE MALE EDITION” printed on the background of another light blue stripe running down part of the left hand side of the cover and along the bottom; the other had the words “THE FEMALE EDITION” on a pinkish stripe running down the right hand side of the cover and across. Amused by this variation on a scheme of color coding more commonly associated with maternity wards, I flipped both volumes over and found, printed beneath the usual tributes on the blurbs, the following notices to the reader:
This is the MALE EDITION of the Dictionary. The FEMALE edition is almost identical. But NOT quite. Be warned that ONE paragraph is crucially different. The choice is yours.
This is the FEMALE EDITION of the Dictionary. The MALE edition is almost identical. But NOT quite. Be warned that ONE paragraph is crucially different. The choice is yours.
The former message - this does need to be specified, since we are evidently no longer in the realm of the self-evident - was carried on the back cover of the male edition, the latter on that of the female. This is anomalous. Books are gendered only in a grammatical sense which determines them as male or female in languages in which, unlike English, nouns take the masculine or feminine: thus, for instance, le livre; il libro; el libro. From this anomalousness arises an anxiety. As a venerable joke aimed at the learner of a gendered foreign language has it, how is one to trust the person unable to make the distinction between male and female? And how, with Pavic’s novel, is one to trust a reading negligent of the distinction between the male and the female edition? The differentiating, en-gendering paragraph in Pavic’s narrative, clearly, is much more than a joke, and the cover’s advertising of its presence much more than a gimmick. A psychoanalytic reading equating the paragraph with the phallus suggests itself, and might be able to plumb the profounder significance of what is encrypted in the text’s depths.
And yet why should literary criticism be exclusively preoccupied with what lies deep? Here I will make no effort to excavate secrets encrypted within Dictionary of the Khazars. I am primarily concerned with what remains on the surface. It is through the agency of something as complicit with surface appearances as a book’s cover that the browser is prompted into acquiring one of the two editions of Dictionary of the Khazars, or both, or neither. In my own case, aware that the distinguishing paragraph and what it encoded would prove irresistible, I bought both books. The lure of what remains on the surface, clearly, should never be underestimated: the book’s/books’ cover is innocuous only to the degree that Johnson’s enigmatic lexicographer is.
More so than with probably any other book, therefore, the reader becomes involved in Dictionary of the Khazars even before peering between the covers. How is one to approach such a relationship critically? Gérard Genette has shown how such an issue might be addressed by developing the concept of a paratext,
… what enables a text to become a text and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public. More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or - a word Borges used apropos of a preface, a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back. It is an ‘undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world’s discourse about the text), an edge, or, as Philippe Lejeune puts it, ‘a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text.’ –Gérard Genette, Paratexts: thresholds of interpretation, trans Jane E. Lewin, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 1-2.
Genette considers the effects produced by cues which sometimes go unnoticed by the casual browser or reader and are seldom addressed by literary criticism: titles, subtitles, authors’ names and pseudonyms, format (e.g. folio or quarto), typesetting, cover design, prefaces, appendices, dedications, publication details, notes, frontispieces, illustrations, blurbs, dust jackets, bands, and other such prompts which make books, but not necessarily texts, what they are.
In illustration, I would like to home in on a particular paratextual element: the titles of postmodern narratives. There are a number of postmodern novels whose titles contain a deliberately misleading generic marker: in this respect, at least, postmodern narratives do exhibit paratextual invention. Perhaps the most outrageous of these is George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, which, though it may provide an edifying read, is probably rather less successful in guaranteeing its readers a happier existence. Lawrence Norfolk’s Lemprière’s Dictionary (1991) purloins the title of Charles Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, and the effect created is similar to that which would be produced by a novel calling itself Roget’s Thesaurus or Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Other works whose titles parody the genre or category whose ranks they ostensibly augment include, to refer only to English fiction, Graham Swift’s Learning to Swim (1982), Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989), and Jeanette Winterson’s Boating for Beginners (1985). It is also interesting to note that certain novels which subvert the genres they outwardly subscribe to contain no reference in their titles to their debunking intent. Two examples are Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), whose form, complete with introduction, poem, and notes, resembles that of a student text of some magnum opus, and John Lancaster’s The Debt to Pleasure (1996), which reads in places like a recipe book. These analogues in postmodern fiction suggest that the word Dictionary in the title of Pavic’s novel deserves to be treated with some attention.
In what way is Pavic’s novel a dictionary? To what extent is the word a misnomer? As the reader weighs up the title he or she might well protest, inwardly, that dictionaries are not narratives, or that they are not supposed to be. Dictionaries are pre-eminent within the ranks of the non-fictive. They are supposed to be functional, to be dipped into at need rather than read. Yet these preconceptions are challenged as the prospective reader weighs up both texts, puzzling over a cover which remains stubborn in signaling incongruities: printed in small type, adjacent to the barcode, is the word Fiction. In order to respond appropriately to these issues, the critical convention of rarely quoting from paratexts - references to dedications and epigraphs are the commonest exceptions - needs to be transgressed here. There is not the scope to do justice, unfortunately, to all the extensive paratextual cues in the novel. One might have dwelt, for instance, on the odd frontispiece in the novel, depicting a man, or deity, around whose body play the smaller bodies of animals which appear to have been transposed from the pages of some bestiary; or on the rather odd fact that the page citing publishing information omits to provide the date of the novel’s first publication, which one has to glean from other sources. However, other paratextual elements will be found quite sufficiently revealing.
The title-page of Dictionary of the Khazars is a good place to start. Placed between the title and the name of the author is the phrase “A lexicon novel in 100,000 words.” This is unusual in more than one way. It is a genre indicator, flagging not only the work’s novelistic affiliations but also declaring its claims as a lexicon novel, which immediately invites comparison with works such as Norfolk’s Lemprière’s Dictionary. The reference to the number of words is equally curious. Dictionaries’ blurbs commonly provide information about the size of their lexicon. The reference to 100,000 words can be seen as an ironic reference to this practice, but like all such figures it has to be taken on trust, particularly in the case of a reading which uses the English translation: a factor which no doubt impinges on the word count. What is odd, however, is that what such statistics normally provide is the number of headwords. Even allowing for the regrettable practice of some dictionaries’ blurbs, which provide a count for definitions rather than headwords, it is surely highly unusual to come across a dictionary which foregrounds its general word count.
Consider also the following item: “Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric.” What does it mean to say that a dictionary has been translated? Additionally, is a dictionary which is translatable really a dictionary? The question is not a frivolous one. While it is hard to see how, for instance, the Oxford English Dictionary can be translated, dictionaries which are eminently translatable do exist. Those which explain terminologies and confine themselves to disciplinary boundaries, such as Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (1967) by Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, come to mind. Typically, such works have a lower number of headwords and longer entries, and indeed seem to serve as the model for Pavic’s narrative. Again, this is confirmed by the paratext. One finds, at the end of the book, a “List of Entries” which itemizes no more than fifty-five entries.
Such works might appear more encyclopedic than lexicographic. But this would be to forget that while all lexicons are dictionaries, not all dictionaries are lexicons. One of the meanings cited for dictionary in the Oxford English Dictionary - there is a pleasing irony in compelling that monument of the lexicographic tradition to define what sort of thing it is, especially since the meaning sought makes manifestly clear the kind of dictionary it is not - specifies:
2. a. By extension: A book of information or reference on any subject or branch of knowledge, the items of which are arranged in alphabetical order; an alphabetical encyclopedia: as A Dictionary of Architecture, Biography, Geography, of the Bible, of Christian Antiquities, of Dates, etc.
It is in this sense that Dictionary of the Khazars is a dictionary. Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary is another such work, providing not definitions, but information on the figures, places and events behind, to quote the subtitle, the “Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors.” This is interesting because it means that in places Lemprière’s dictionary, like Pavic’s narrative, is actually entertaining to read, as when one encounters an entry like that for
Hippothoon, a son of Neptune and Alope daughter of Cercyon, exposed in the woods by his mother, that her amours with the god might be concealed from her father. Her shame was discovered, and her father ordered her to be put to death. Neptune changed her into a fountain, and the child was preserved by mares, whence his name, and when grown up, placed on his father’s throne by the friendship of Theseus.
This entry, reminiscent of the interplay between realism and fantasy which suffuses Pavic’s work, also explains the rationale behind Norfolk’s Lemprière’s Dictionary, in which the (fictional) Lemprière is haunted by enactments of scenes which are reminiscent of those he explicates in his dictionary, as when his father is hunted down before his eyes by a pack of hounds within hours of his working on the legend of Actaeon and Diana. Indeed, in Norfolk’s novel the dictionary doubles up as a virtual diary of an obsession. Lemprière comes to believe that he is the victim of a vast conspiracy which manipulates events such as the founding of the East India Company, the siege of La Rochelle, and the French Revolution. It would be fascinating to trace the similarities this sets up with Dictionary of the Khazars, to discover how and why Norfolk’s and Pavic’s lexicon novels pursue a common concern with the operations of magic realism, surrealism, and conspiracy theories. In the present context, however, it is more appropriate simply to note that both works succeed in finding a narrative dynamic which challenges the perception of dictionaries as simply tools of reference.
Following on from the title page and the page bearing the publication information in Dictionary of the Khazars is a further paratextual oddity, an epigraph which sounds more like an epitaph:
Here lies the reader who will never open this book. He is forever dead.
This, again, is a paratextual element functioning on more than one level. It could be seen as a wicked reference to the browsers who decide to dispense with the entire project, to “never open this book,” and therefore to be “forever dead” as readers. The epigraph finds an echo a few pages later in another paratextual section, the “Preliminary Notes to the Second, Reconstructed and Revised, Edition”:
The author assures the reader that he will not have to die if he reads this book, as did the user of the 1691 edition, when The Khazar Dictionary still had its first scribe. Some explanation regarding that edition is in order here, but for the sake of brevity the lexicographer proposes to strike a deal with his readers. He will sit down to write these notes before supper, and the reader will take them to read after supper. Thereby, hunger will force the author to be brief, and gratification will allow the reader to peruse the introduction at leisure.
Talk of a contract between reader and writer is not new, but this suggests a solicitude for the reader’s comfort which rivals that apparent in the first chapter of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979): “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” Again, the paratextual networking is complex. The alert reader of the paratext will have encountered, before he reads the above paragraph, another supplementary title-page whose origin rests clearly with the author rather than the publisher. This supplementary (and fictive) title-page gives the narrative’s title, in Latin, as Lexicon Cosri; places within parentheses the words “A Dictionary of Dictionaries of the Khazar Question”; and, at the bottom, “Reconstruction of the Original 1691 Daubmannus edition (destroyed in 1692), including its most recent revisions.”
Allusions to reconstructions and revisions come as no surprise in a dictionary’s paratext. Facilitated by centralized databases, revisions to dictionaries are now on-going and often on-line. However, revisions have been a constant in the history of dictionaries, making it possible not only to include new entries but also to amend old ones. Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, for instance, passed through several impressions and editions. The more vexed issues arise with the words “a dictionary of dictionaries.” Such a volume would be a metadictionary, to which definitiveness and authoritativeness should be indispensable. Yet the words printed at the foot of this page indicate the problem: the original dictionary, the “Daubmannus” edition, is lost, and what can be reconstructed must perforce remain an unsatisfactory simulacrum. A reflection of this is found in the novel’s title, which does not include an initial definite article to suggest that what the reader has to hand is the dictionary of the Khazars. Paratextual networking on this point is tightened by this reference to what would have been the dictionary:
Among the five hundred copies of the first dictionary, Daubmannus printed one with a poisoned dye. This poisoned copy, with its gilded lock, had a companion copy with a silver lock. In 1692 the Inquisition destroyed all copies of the Daubmannus edition, and the only ones to remain in circulation were the poisoned copy of the book, which had escaped the censors’ notice, and the auxiliary copy,… Insubordinates and infidels who ventured to read the proscribed dictionary risked the threat of death. Whoever opened the book soon grew numb, stuck on his own heart as on a pin. Indeed, the reader would die on the ninth page at the words Verbum caro factum est…
The similarities in this passage with the motif of the reader’s death, and, in view of the bipartite format of the novel as a whole, with that of companion texts, are self-evident.
Another motif which emerges here, that involving a lost ür-text, recalls some of Borges’ stories which recount how a quest is mounted for an elusive book believed to harbor information on a momentous secret. Thus, in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the narrator and Bioy Casares search desperately for books about the land of Uqbar, after having encountered a reference to the place in a copy of Volume XLVI of The Anglo-American Encyclopedia which, uniquely, “instead of 917,… contained 921 pages.” Additionally, in “The Library of Babel” another book, “the catalogue of catalogues,” is the volume which might help reveal the rationale behind the labyrinthine structure of the library. Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) provides another intertext: the Aedificium in which Aristotle’s lost book on comedy is concealed is obviously modeled on the library in Borges’s story, while the guardian of the fateful manuscript, Jorge of Burgos, murders those trying to purloin the book by using a poison similar to that used by Daubmannus. It would seem that what all of these works have in common is that they are, in all senses of the phrase, bookish narratives.
It is fitting, therefore, that Dictionary of the Khazars should foreground this affiliation by incorporating books within its structure, especially through the “List of Contents.” A good deal of the narrative, the List makes clear, follows a tripartite structure. In much the same way that Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) is a compendium of four differently-colored notebooks whose covers are color-coded to signal different aspects of the protagonist, Anna Wulf, Dictionary of the Khazars comprises three dictionaries. The Red Book is given over to Christian sources on the Khazar question; The Green Book contains “Islamic sources on the Khazar question”; and The Yellow Book is devoted to “Hebrew sources on the Khazar question.” Christianity, Islam, Judaism: the religions of the book, therefore, impose their bookishness on the Dictionary.
As the section “How to Use the Dictionary” explains, many of the entries are, as befits a dictionary, cross-referenced. Christianity, Islam, Judaism: the religions of the book. The reader will not be surprised to discover, on reading the narrative, that the text confirms what the paratext anticipates. There occurs among the narrative’s characters a desperate attempt to piece together a higher truth, the clues to which are dispersed over the three books. What results is fragmentariness, caused by and causing the competitiveness which institutes a race as to who might be first to access this truth, the absence of which militates against wholeness, fraternity, peace, synthesis. Sensitized by recent events in the Balkans, is it fanciful to see in this an allegory of the racial, ethnic, and religious divisiveness tormenting political and social life in the region? Or an indictment, through the formal inventiveness of postmodern narratives immanent in the paratext (let alone the text) of Pavic’s novel, of the same excesses which vex that other classic of Eastern European literature: the more conventionally configured Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andric?
The contents page is the clearest indicator of the difficulty of separating, in Pavic’s novel, paratext from text. Its first four components, preceding the Red, Green, and Yellow books which make up the bulk of the text and following the Preliminary Notes, are: “A History of the Khazar Dictionary”; “Composition of the Dictionary”; “How to Use the Dictionary”; “Preserved Fragments from the Introduction to the Destroyed 1691 Edition of Dictionary (translated from Latin).” Its last three comprise “Appendix I: Father Theoctist Nikolsky as Compiler of The Khazar Dictionary’s First Edition”; Appendix II: Excerpt from the Court Minutes, with the Testimonies of Witnesses in the Dr. Abu Kabir Muawia Murder Case”; and “Closing Note: On the Usefulness of This Dictionary.” Ordinarily, as Genette’s classifications make clear, such sections would take up their place within the paratext. But with the perversity typical of the manner in which postmodern narratives subvert narratological constructions, the eight components enumerated above are both paratextual and textual. Paratextual because they would normally be classified as such, in the same way that one would do with, for instance, the seventy-one-page user’s guide which accompanies the Compact one-volume edition of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and which is nevertheless briefer than the full book-length version which, packaged separately, has a rather more ambiguous paratextual status. Textual because, together, these components in Dictionary of the Khazars match the fragmentariness, the drama, the quasi-hallucinatory nature of events recounted in the narrative.
Nowhere is this interplay between paratext and text more apparent than in the “Closing Note on the Usefulness of this Dictionary.” The title of this section is, surely, meant to tease. A dictionary which is really a narrative cannot be useful in any conventional sense, and Pavic’s work, in particular, casts doubt on any usefulness it may aspire to by inconveniently partitioning itself into two formats. Even as a narrative, the work is useless unless both male and female editions are to hand. A reading of Dictionary of the Khazars founded on only one of male and female editions is incomplete.
For the reader eager to discover the differentiating paragraph, who may have acquired both editions and thumbed through them wondering all along whether it might not all be an elaborate hoax, it may therefore come as a relief that, towards its end, Pavic’s novel provides the following clue:
Let that lovely woman with the quick eyes and languid hair who, in reading this dictionary and running through her fear as through a room, do the following. On the first Wednesday of the month, with the dictionary under her arm, let her go to the tea shop in the main square of town. Waiting for her there will be a young man who, like her, has just been overcome with a feeling of loneliness, wasting time by reading the same book. Let them sit down for a coffee together and compare the masculine and feminine exemplars of their books. They are different. When they compare the short passage in Dr. Dorothea Schultz’s last letter, printed in italics in the one and the other exemplar, the book will fit together as a whole, like a game of dominoes, and they will need it no longer. Then let them give the lexicographer a good scolding, but let them be quick about it in the name of what comes next, for what comes next is their affair alone, and it is worth more than any reading.
I see how they lay their dinner out on top of the mailbox in the street and how they eat, embraced, sitting on their bicycles.
Here we have the cliché of the romantic genre: the making whole of a memento which had been partitioned, as when a ring broken into two halves is pieced together again through reunion, after various misadventures, of two separated or estranged lovers. In Dictionary of the Khazars, the memento concerned is nothing less than the narrative itself. Made whole through the coming together of the male and female editions, it symbolizes the wholeness which the characters in the novel desperately seek and which continues to elude them. As in Lindsay Clarke’s novel, The Chymical Wedding (1989), in which the eponymous principle sought by alchemists promises mystic union between the male and female principles, such a consummation comes to allegorize the harmony which the human condition yearns for but which appears unachievable.
It is therefore time to look at the differentiating paragraph:
And he gave me a few of the Xeroxed sheets of paper lying on the table in front of him. I could have pulled the trigger then and there. There wouldn’t be a better moment. There was only one lone witness present in the garden - and he was a child. But that’s not what happened. I reached out and took those exciting sheets of paper, which I enclose in this letter. Taking them instead of firing my gun, I looked at those Saracen fingers with their nails like hazelnuts and I thought of the tree Halevi mentions in his book on the Khazars. I thought how each and every one of us is just such a tree: the taller we grow toward the sky, through the wind and rain toward God, the deeper we must sink our roots through the mud and subterranean waters toward hell. With these thoughts in my mind, I read the pages given me by the green-eyed Saracen. They shattered me, and in disbelief I asked Dr. Muawia where he had got them. (Male edition, author’s emphasis)
And he gave me a few of the Xeroxed sheets of paper lying on the table in front of him. As he passed them to me, his thumb brushed mine and I trembled from the touch. I had the sensation that our past and our future were in our finger and that they had touched. And so, when I began to read the proffered pages, I at one moment lost the train of thought in the text and drowned it in my feelings. In these seconds of absence and self-oblivion, centuries passed with every read but uncomprehended and unabsorbed line, and when, after a few moments, I came to and re-established contact with the text, I knew that the reader who returns from the open seas of his feelings is no longer the same reader who embarked on that sea only a short while ago. I gained and learned more by not reading than by reading those pages, and when I asked Dr. Muawia where he had got them he said something that astonished me even more. (Female edition, author’s emphasis)
Gender stereotypes are at work here, the aggression expressed in the male edition countered by the more emotionally marked reaction in the female edition. The difference between the two attitudes is all the more remarkable since they emanate from the same person, Dr. Dorothea Schulz. The determining difference is Dr. Schulz’s decision to read the Xeroxed sheets in the male edition, and not to read them in the female. The former course leads to dismay, and the hopelessness of any redemption; the latter to serenity and an expectation of harmony.
This might seem like an elaborate way of providing different resolutions to the narrative’s plot. To show that the partition of the novel into male and female editions is not uneconomic would require greater space than is available here, but it would be negligent not to mention a passage in the novel’s (para)text which is suggestive:
If only for a moment in his life, every man becomes a part of Adam, and when all these moments are assembled, one gets the body of Adam on earth, not in form but in time, because only one part of time is illuminated, accessible, and usable… Thus, it is only by joining Adam’s body that we ourselves become all-seeing and joint owners of our future. That is why the Khazars searched for Adam’s body, why the feminine and masculine books of the Khazar dream hunters were a bit like Adam’s icons, in which the feminine marked his body, the masculine his blood. The Khazars knew, of course, that their sorcerers could not encompass the entire body or depict it in their dictionary-icons. In fact, they often painted two icons without any face, but with two thumbs - the left and the right, Adam’s feminine and masculine thumb. For each part captured in the dictionaries could be put into motion and come into life only after the touching of two fingers, the masculine and the feminine. Therefore, in their dictionaries the Khazars paid particular attention to mastering these two parts of Adam’s body, and it is believed that they even succeeded, but did not have enough time for the other parts. Adam has, however, and he waits. Just as his souls migrate to his children and return to his body as the deaths of those children, so part of his immense body-state can at any moment and in every one of us be killed again or revived. It only takes the prophetic touch of the fingers, the masculine and the feminine, provided we have built at least a part of Adam’s body behind these fingers. That we have become a part of it…
What this passage does is to make the paratext’s design coextensive with the text’s thematic concerns. There are cases in which thematic content makes it almost obligatory that this should happen. Thus Genette, in “a sly wink at his long-time publisher, Editions du Seuil,” chooses the title Seuils for the French original of Paratexts. In addition, he impishly notes at the start of the Index that its “real function… is to save the author from the taunt: ‘No index.’” For a novel which contains a passage such as the above, meanwhile, it is fitting to have text and paratext incorporate signifiers of division, to separate the masculine and feminine principle, to evoke through the work’s very format the reality of disintegration and the hope of re-integration. Hence the division into a male and a female edition. Since the paratext is the primary concern here, one should note that it is not beyond the bounds of plausibility to construe the balding man on the cover(s) of the Penguin translation as an Adamic figure, nor to see, in his closed eyes, the difficulty of attaining to the “all-seeing” existence invoked in the passage.
With the possible exception of Pale Fire, in which the interplay between the narratorial voices echoing through John Shade’s poem and Charles Kinbote’s interpolations make it difficult to distinguish paratext from text, I am unaware of any postmodern narrative whose paratext is quite as complex as that of Dictionary of the Khazars. It is a paratext which goes to the length of forcing the reader to read, in effect, two texts and - a consideration which the hard commercial realities of modern-day publishing turn into something of an achievement - to compel publishers to market simultaneously two editions of one novel. This alone is enough to challenge perceptions on how reading should proceed. For what Pavic’s novel does is to stress all along, occasionally earnestly, occasionally tongue in cheek, but nearly always paratextually, the disposition it demands of the reader:
The author advises the reader not to tackle this book unless he absolutely has to. And if he does not touch it, let it be on days when he feels that his mind and sense of caution probe deeper than usual, and let him read it the way he catches ‘leap-fever’, an illness that skips over every other day and strikes only on feminine days of the week.
None of these prompts is as strange as the one below:
But the reader should not be discouraged by such detailed instructions. He can, with a clear conscience, skip all these introductory remarks… He may, of course, wander off and get lost among the words of this book,… In that event, the reader has no other choice than to begin in the middle of any given page and forge his own path. Then he may move through the book as through a forest, from one marker to the next, orienting himself by observing the stars, the moon, and the cross…. he can rearrange it in an infinite number of ways, like a Rubik’s cube. No chronology will be observed here, nor is one necessary. Hence, each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards, and, as with a mirror, he will get out of this dictionary as much as he puts into it, for, as is written on one of the pages of this lexicon, you cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it. After all, this book need never be read in its entirety; one can read half or only a part and stop there, as one often does with dictionaries. The more one seeks the more one gets, and the lucky discoverer will ultimately have in his possession all the links connecting the names in this dictionary.
This is disingenuous, an extension of the interdependence between fantasy and reality which characterizes the whole work. There can however be no doubt that, read aright, what the paratext of Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars does is restore an awareness of the bonhomie which reading can make possible. What Pavic’s novel dramatizes is the truth that impressionistic responses to a novel’s packaging can impinge upon the reading process. To the extent that such responses are coded by the paratext of Dictionary of the Khazars, it is difficult to distinguish the paratextual from the textual, the superficial from what lies deep.
In view of the paratextual investment of Dictionary of the Khazars, the existence of different covers on different editions of the novel is certainly no innocent gesture. Interrogating this lack of innocence would require another paper: an essay comparing the paratexts of paperback editions of Middlemarch, for instance, would not only have to cite publication details for a variety of publishers, but would also need, through illustrations or some other means, to make it easy for the reader to visualize layouts and designs. Consequently, the usual list of references at the end of the paper would be inadequate - a consideration which, in deference to the obligation to make one’s paratext conform to one’s text (not to mention the obligation to act on what one has argued for), has persuaded me not to include a list of references at the end of this paper. To paraphrase Genette, the list would only be there to save the author from the taunt, “No references.” If paratextual cues are to be taken seriously, therefore, if we are to have, indeed, a poetics of the paratext, it would not be hyperbolic to expect, in the case of a narrative such as Dictionary of the Khazars whose paratextual play is quite as complicated as its textual, critical accounts which are individuated to a very marked degree, and whose development is shaped by the physical attributes of the copy of the work to hand.
To scoff at the influence of the contingent on reading amounts to an inability to engage with a paratextual criticism, which is not averse to pursuing the individual encounter with the superficial. The individual and the superficial: two dimensions which criticism finds perturbing, and which the paratext of Dictionary of the Khazars probes relentlessly, as shown by its highly developed awareness of the way in which books are consumed. How is one to read, otherwise, the references to the situational dimension of the reading experience which, as has been shown, punctuate the paratext of Dictionary of the Khazars? The issue of textual consumption, if raised in the context of speculation about the end of the book, becomes progressively more urgent - it is surely no coincidence that speculation about the consequences of the new technologies for the futures of reading has implicated Derrida, whose paratextual devices have sanctioned a number of digressions in this paper. This urgency is demonstrable through a final reference to the implications of the multiple formats of Pavic’s novel. Readers of the electronic book review will be aware that preparations are in hand for the conversion of Pavic’s novel into digital format, a development which projects the formal ingenuity of Dictionary of the Khazars into yet more innovative realms amenable to hypertextual, as well as paratextual, manipulation. In what way would such a format dispense a different reading experience of Pavic’s novel? In what way would it make it new? Perhaps, if we are to be worthy readers of that format, it is as well to ask ourselves, before we get excited about such innovations, whether we have sufficiently understood the paratextual richness of the hard copy(ies) of the novel. And, should there be any doubt that what is at stake is an ethics of reading, which positions itself at a site where the reception theories of an Iser or a Jauss, the vigil(ance) of Blanchot’s mode of criticism, and the narratologically-mediated paratextual criticism of Genette might rendezvous, it should be sobering to reflect that to fail to ask ourselves the question is to sentence the author of Dictionary of the Khazars to pointless drudgery.